An Old Soul of mystical wisdom, Rama is a London-based, Palestinian artist, whose grace and brave essence left me mesmerised when we first met on Yumna Al-Arashi’s set. Outspoken and brave, the Creatress is continuously challenging the world of contemporary art.
Rama was raised in Dubai, a cosmopolitan place where East and West form an interesting blend. “A lot of people say that Dubai hasn’t got any culture and that it’s just a tacky place filled with money and skyscrapers. There is a lot of that but people often forget that you can still see the culture and heritage, which is more true to the legacy of this place. I spent most of my early childhood in Sharjah, an emirate which shows some more of that original culture and it helped me appreciate the complex history of the United Arab Emirates.”
Born into a Palestinian family of creatives who migrated to Dubai in the 90s, it is Rama’s upbringing that made of her the independent, powerful woman that she is today. The Creatress’ father is a published poet and her mother is a creative thinker who has always supported the young woman in every decision that she would make.
“My older sister is one of my biggest inspirations. She’s a photographer and a travel writer. While growing up she was the one who inspired my philosophy and helped shape my feminist values. Because of her, I grew up very aware of what you would usually shelter your kids from: racism, violence and sexism. Now whenever she comes back from her travels, she shares the most amazing stories and so much of the worldly wisdom she had gained. She pushes the boundaries in all that she does.”
In Dubai, it is considered somewhat controversial to be a female solo traveller; people do not truly understand why a woman would need to leave her home country to look for new experiences. However, while travelling Europe,the Americas and beyond as Arab women, Rama and her sister Darah have to deal with a different kind of ignorance. “People keep asking us why we are not covered if we are Arabs. It’s a question that one gradually gets fed up with. We are not obliged to be covered! But my sister and I provide each other with support and solidarity and we love to challenge the stereotypes of Arab women, which we are doing with our current project, Halozine.”
Rama and her sister are currently curating an online newsletter called Follow The Halo , a culture zine that focuses on art, feminism in the Middle East and beyond. (Currently open to submissions, so have a look 😉 ).
Her upbringing has shaped her identity, it made her interested in the notion of diaspora and how it influences you as a person who was born in a specific place. “I feel like I’ve been influenced by those globalised and international cultures in both London and Dubai, even though I know on the inside that I am Palestinian and I feel very patriotic and connected to my roots. Nevertheless, I never had the privilege of learning about my own culture as intimately as I would have liked because of my circumstance, being part of a diaspora. This connects me to so many people who are in the same position and I find it interesting because people who come from places with a history of conflict or ongoing conflict that has forced them to migrate, share similar stories and yet the details are so different. We all struggle with our defining our identities but I think there’s so much potential in that gap that we find ways to create and generate and build ourselves via that creative output and collective solidarity and unity.”
In terms of schooling, Rama had quite a conservative education. She had to learn how to navigate through the conservative culture of a British institution in the United Arab Emirates and her own liberal values and at times founds herself in difficult situations where her work was censored. “A lot of my work critiqued violence against women and against minorities.”
I asked Rama to share a story or two about the challenges that she had to go through as a female artist in schools of Dubai.
“I know that feminism, Islam and conservative Arab culture are complicated topics and one needs to understand the nuances in order to talk of them impartially. I tried to address some of the issues in my work. One of my final pieces in high school was a series of paintings of nude figures. Because of the school’s regulations they took photos of my work and covered the originals with sheets. That was very disheartening, because all of my classmates’ work was displayed and mine just taken down and covered up. They would only uncover it when someone requested to see my paintings. My family and I got the headmaster involved who became very interested in my work and when he saw it he just said: ‘it’s wonderful but you need to understand that we cannot show that. Unfortunately I am not the one who makes the rules’. Apparently this would go against the school owner’s values and culture. I had to deal with that and it did make me very angry at the time. I do know now that my school simply wasn’t ready for something like that and I don’t think it’s going to be ready for a long time. I managed to let go and understand this. Obviously, censoring my work is very disrespectful and ignorant but then again, in some situations it’s about respecting culture and people’s religious values, and my mistake was that i did not fully realise this at the time.”
The Creatress made peace with that, knowing that her work would be received in a more beneficial way elsewhere and her path led her to London eventually.
While already being closely familiar with the Islamic faith, Rama had to take Islamic Studies classes in school. Because the curriculum is set by the government, the teachers are open to deliver the lessons however they want to, which can get tricky when an extremist is teaching a class. In the Creatress’ case, a male teacher whom she describes as “dogmatic” taught her. During one of the lessons the topic was the headscarf and whether or not a woman should wear one. Rama who does not wear a headscarf herself, asked the professor to explain the purpose behind it. “He just said that you have to accept it because it’s mandatory, while obviously we all know that the Quran does not justify it like that! There is at least reasoning and most of the time there are various interpretations for all of its principles and teachings. This was the teacher’s own interpretation of what he had studied. When I asked him to elaborate he said something that really helped me understand how men co-opt religion to control women. He tried to make his point by using a metaphor that was very humiliating and disappointing. He said something along the lines: ‘Women are like pieces of candy. If I throw a wrapped candy and an unwrapped one on the floor, which one would you rather have?’”
At that moment, the fifteen year old Rama realised that it is not Islam that is oppressive but the authority figure who was standing in front of her. Angry and humiliated, she converted her feelings into art:
When she moved to London, Rama found her second home. The city gave her the opportunity to discover herself in a different way, to experiment with her artwork and meet new fellow creatives. When it comes to her artistry, her priorities had to change as well. London was more than ready for the feminist statements that she was willing to make through her work. However, she had to remind herself that in the UK, she is not only seen as a woman but as an Arab woman and this particular intersectional subjectivity started influencing her artwork in a different way.
“In my home environment my concerns were about women and their status. In London, I have noticed that additionally to the casual racism towards me as a woman from the Middle East, there is also an over-sexualisation of my body and sexual harassment is rife. Especially online. There are so many creeps and so much sexual harassment happening on social media platforms, it’s really vile.”
I couldn’t agree more with Rama. The amount of inappropriate messages and unsolicited dick pics that every woman gets from strangers on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and dating apps like Tinder, is ridiculous. It is shocking how unaccountable men can feel while hiding behind their screens. When we were sharing our stories, Rama and I laughed and asked ourselves how dick pics from strangers are supposed to be a form of flirting, arousing or even a casual way of introducing oneself. Amongst the laughter and the absurdity, we had to acknowledge that this is not acceptable and yet people rarely talk about how quickly online sexual harassment can escalate. The Creatress’ experience with social media and dating apps was so infuriating, that once again, she decided to retaliate in a creative way. In order to raise awareness she launched a project called Romeo is a Jerk.
A collector of Valentine Day’s cards, “Because why not they are all aesthetically pleasing and we all want to believe in love”, Rama decided to make use of them in order to demonstrate the irony of our love ideals and what being a woman on dating apps and social media feels like in today’s digital age.
Inside those beautiful cards, she transcribed all the messages (some of them complemented with grim visuals) that she and her close girlfriends received on platforms like Tinder, Facebook and Instagram, all of them remained anonymous of course. “I felt bad for these guys but I was also disgusted to the point of wanting to do something against it. I wanted to team up with my female friends and create a sort of archive to show how endemic it is.”
Romeo is a Jerk is a tangible ride through pure absurdity. It’s awkward, acutely uncomfortable, funny at times but also horrifying. Of course, having a woman who is not afraid to raise her voice and express her frustration against the status quo, made many people angry when they saw her project. The Creatress’ growing Instagram page that she created for Romeo was a Jerk was reported and eventually taken down. It not only showed her project in its entirety but was also collecting additional submissions from anyone who wanted to share the harassment they were getting on the internet.
“I displayed the project at a few art festivals and the reception of it was pretty intense at times. I was so nervous to show a bunch of dudes’ dicks to be honest. Loads of men were being unpleasant to me but I also received feedback that surprised me. At the Cultural Traffic art fair in London, a guy managed to read every single card and the look on his face was morose. I thought he would explode into a rage (he was a big tall and quite intimidating looking guy) but in the end he looked at me disappointed and asked ‘People truly say these things?’ and he started crying! He kept apologising, it felt like he was apologising for every man on this planet. It was an intense encounter.”
It’s important to note that Rama’s Romeo is a Jerk is not criticising nudes. If both parties agree on getting nudes from each other, then that’s called consent and it’s great! Be creative and have as much fun as you want! What her project is trying to point out is that, it is not acceptable to send this sort of content to a woman who has not granted your affirmative consent.
Currently, the Creatress studies Fine Art at Goldsmith’s University in London. Her work focuses on gender and critiques the exotisicised and fetishised representation of Middle Eastern women. Rama is still exploring different art forms and the ways she can authentically express her subjectivity as a Palestinian woman who grew up in an Emirati city. Rama is the kind of woman who will shake today’s world of injustice and cowardice. A Goddess of incredible intelligence with a spirit of a peaceful warrior, she will keep rising and all her sisters shall rise with her.